Town Seeks To Pitch In $850K For Little Beach Flood Protection

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Storms

A storm surge pushes through a sandbag berm at the end of Starfish Lane during one of last March’s coastal storms. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM In a bid to leverage a $1 million state grant, the town is proposing to spend $851,798 on a package of flood prevention improvements for the Little Beach neighborhood.

Residents and property owners in the area have pledged the remaining $617,245, or 25 percent of the nearly $2.5 million project.

There may be a need to call a special town meeting this fall to ask voters to approve the town’s contribution, officials said this week.

Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen Monday that the town has been working with members of the Little Beach Association on an application for the Mass. Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The deadline for the grant application was April 4.

The project involves elevating and reinforcing the dune system east of the neighborhood, Duncanson said.

“This would encompass the area from just south of Dune Drive to basically the start of the dike on Morris Island Road,” he said. The work would raise the dunes to a consistent height of around nine feet, sufficient to protect the area against flooding from a 50-year storm. “Right now, the dunes in that area are not a uniform elevation,” he said.

Raising and strengthening the dunes is not enough to protect the neighborhood. In the coastal storms that happened last year, the storm surge entered up the boat ramp at Outermost Harbor Marine and either overtopped the bulkheads or back-flooded the storm drains, sending water up Seagull Road. The plan would raise the marina bulkheads, modify storm drains, and provide a means of keeping water from entering by the boat ramp.

The nine-foot height would protect against a majority of storm surges, Duncanson said. To protect against 100-year storms would have required raising the elevation to 13 feet, which he said would be impracticable.

The total project cost is estimated to be $2,468,982, Duncanson said. While it would have been possible to make the improvements in phases, doing so would have disqualified the project from the MEMA grant program.

Most of the Little Beach neighborhood, including the roads, are privately owned.

“What is the benefit to the town?” board Chairman Dean Nicastro asked.

Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the town is supporting the effort because preventing flooding in Little Beach also prevents the flooding of town-owned Morris Island Road. It also preserves access for the harbormaster and the Coast Guard, she said.

During last year’s storms, flooding cut off access to Morris Island and Stage Island and prevented utility crews from immediately reaching the area. The fire department had to rescue one woman from her home, and the harbormaster rescued a woman from her flooded vehicle.

Selectman Peter Cocolis said there is another potential public benefit: if a storm surge inundated septic systems, the flood waters could contaminate nearby shellfish beds.

“There’s an economic issue, potentially,” he said.

Goldsmith said the application has been reviewed by town counsel, who opined that there is a strong enough public benefit to “satisfy the concerns of using public funds.” Still, the expenditure is not included in town budgets, so a town meeting vote will be needed. “Town meeting may or may not find the public purpose in this,” Goldsmith said.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he agrees the project would have a public benefit, “but I’m concerned about the money.” He said he doesn’t believe the Little Beach Association has raised “anywhere near” the $617,245 is plans to contribute. “That’s a big nut,” he said.

Duncanson said the Little Beach Association includes members from Morris and Stage islands, and the organization’s fundraising is continuing.

“I don’t know when these homes were built,” Nicastro said, but private citizens built in low-lying areas, “and now they’re coming to the town for a bailout. That’s the kind of argument you’re going to hear,” he said. But it’s clear that the town gets property tax income from these properties, “and if the valuations go down, that hurts us,” Nicastro added. It’s noteworthy that the town is contributing more than the Little Beach Association, he said.

Selectmen voted unanimously to authorize the town manager to submit a revised version of the grant application that includes financial numbers.

Board member Cory Metters asked what happens if the Little Beach Association doesn’t meet its fundraising goal.

“Where does that put us?” he asked.

“An interesting spot,” Duncanson replied. The project would likely need to be cut back somehow, he noted. But Little Beach Association representatives have indicated that once the grant is awarded, more people will start contributing to the fund, he added.

Dykens said it will be a tough sell to voters at town meeting if the Little Beach Association doesn’t raise the funds it’s pledged.

“It’s going to be a very difficult sell to sell the $851,000, period,” Nicastro said. He said the high price tag concerns him. “I can only imagine what the finance committee’s going to think of something like this.”